Roman Seas

Over the weekend, I read Justin Leidwanger’s new book, Roman Seas: A Maritime Archaeology of Eastern Mediterranean Economies (2020). It’s a pretty good book that brings ship wreck data to bear on long-standing questions of regional and inter-regional trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Leidwanger’s focus on the Cilician coast and Cyprus make the book particularly useful for my work on that island and it was gratifying to see the work that I did with David Pettegrew and Scott Moore cited in footnotes! While other can quibble with our interpretation of the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, it’s harder to dismiss the data that our project produced and its contribution to the growing corpus of well-documented Late Roman sites in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levant. Leidwanger’s interest in similarly well-documented shipwrecks, including some that he documented himself, provides a offshore (or at very least near-shore) analog to expanding body of intensive survey data and well published (and quantifiable) excavation data from Cyprus, Cilicia, and the northeastern Levant. Whether this ever becomes “big data” of the kind that other social scientists have invested with such attention, remains hard to know especially considering the significant variation in methods and typologies across the region. That being said, there’s no doubt that evidence is piling up and almost begging for the kind of thoughtful interpretation offered in this book.

The book will reward some re-reading over the next few months and I try to come to terms with the scope of Leidwanger’s argument. For now, I’ll offer a few quick observations. 

The first few chapters of the book offers little new, but does provide a usual interpretative summary of the recent interest in regional analysis in the Eastern Mediterranean, the basic elements of Roman and Late Roman maritime technology, and the various ways in which terrestrial landscapes and maritime seascapes interact to produce distinct interpretative units. I have little doubt that these chapters will be see more than their share of citations among scholars interested in understanding the relationship between coastal sites, the sea, and connectivity. Leidwanger’s observations would be been very useful when I was muddling my way through my “Is Cyprus an Island?” paper last fall!

The heart of the book comes in the last 100 or so pages when Leidwanger introduces a corpus of 67 well documented shipwrecks from the Datça peninsula and the southern coast of Cyprus. These wrecks date to the Roman and Late Roman periods and appear to be representative of both a wider body of wrecks from well dated wrecks in the Eastern Mediterranean and present little to contradict trends in less carefully dated shipwreck sites in the same region.

This representative and relatively well documented assemblage of sites allows Leidwanger to produce a range of thoughtful arguments about regional and interregional connections. Leidwanger applies a two-level network analysis to these ships cargoes which largely consisted of amphora. One level of network analysis concentrates on the origins of the cargoes and the other incorporates the locations of the wrecks themselves. These two levels of analysis suggest shifts in the economic networks between the Romana and Late Roman period with the former centered on the Aegean and including greater connections to the Adriatic than the latter which centers on Cyprus and Cilicia and involves few ties to points further west. This coincides with Leidwangers interpretation of terrestrial finds from the central southern coast of Cyprus and the Datça peninsula in western Turkey and reinforces the idea that the links between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean weaken in the Late Roman period.

Leidwanger also contends that in the Late Roman period economic networks become more regional in general with smaller ships, smaller cargoes, and closer connections between ports. He argues that this reflects the increasingly “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity and the “gravitational pull” of larger regional centers and, in particular, the capital in Constantinople. The large-scale state influence over interregional exchange provided energy and connections to smaller-scale interregional exchange through processes that are not entirely clear.

I see no reason to disagree with Leidwanger’s arguments for Late Antique Cyprus. Indeed, the coastal site of Pyla-Koutsopetria seems to reached its peak economically during the 6th and early 7th century when imperial influence over large-scale exchange on Cyprus was at its peak. It is likewise intriguing to wonder whether the warehouses at the site of Dreamer’s Bay on the Akrotiri peninsula and at the site of Ay. Yiorgios-Peyias reflected the intensification of shorter distance regional trade or accommodations for longer distance interregional trade stimulated by the quaestura exercitus or the annona shipments to Constantinople. We argued that the massive quantity of Late Roman 1 amphora at Pyla-Koutsopetria may have reflected the use of this port as depot for the quaestura exercitus which did not necessarily flow through the major urban ports on Cyprus (e.g. Paphos, Salamis, or Kition). In our view, then, the long distance, administrative trade of the imperial command economy operated outside the typical routes of long-distance trade concentrated at major ports. This may reflect imperial efforts to develop unique infrastructure of warehouses and perhaps even agents and services designed to facilitate the movement of agricultural goods to the capital. 

This, of course, is all rather speculative on our part and does little to undermine Leidwanger’s broader observation that administrative trade on the interregional level shaped intraregional trade networks as ships acquired good at various ports on either their return journeys or as part of the process of moving good to regional entrepôts.

Leidwanger’s focus on transport amphora necessarily dictated his interest in agricultural goods. This undoubted constituted the bulk of ancient trade. It would be interesting, however, to compare, say, the distribution of Late Roman table wares in his case study regions. The persistence of African Red slip, for example, in certain areas of Cyprus well into Late Antiquity indicates that connections with the West were not entirely absent. It would have also been interesting to compare the relationship between economic zones and, say, ecclesiastic architecture to determine if the movement of bulk goods paralleled connections between construction crews, architects, or religious communities. If the connection between “microregions” often developed as forms of social insurance between communities whether other forms of social and cultural contact followed these routes and either made economic ties possible or reinforced them.

In short, Leidwanger’s book is a compelling body of evidence in support of a series of recent research questions focused on the relationships between Mediterranean “small places” over time. It’s a short, easy read that summarizes a good bit of specialized literature that might not be on every scholar’s regular reading list. It’s a good book and well worth the read.

Plague and Famine in Late Antiquity and Byzantium

Tomorrow I’m presenting in Prof. Sercan Yandim Aydin and Prof. Luca Zavagno’s Byzantium at Ankara seminar series in a session titled “Famine and Plagues in Byzantium: archaeology, documentary and hagiography in a comparative perspective.”

I have to admit to feeling more than a little nervous about the topic which is pretty far from my core area of expertise (however narrow that might be). I’ve spend the last few days reviewing some of the key works on the topic of plague and famine, and I have to admit that it’s been a nice break from my other simmering projects.

While I’m not planning to present a formal paper, it’s useful for me to get my ideas together. For the following observations, I’m indebted to the crowd-sourced “Archaeology of Epidemics” syllabus.

It seems to me that the archaeology of plagues and famines recognizes the long-standing ties between disease and sedentary agriculture. The latter tends to be a precondition for  historical understandings of famine (although famines are, of course, possible among hunter-gatherers, many of the preconditions for famine appear to be more prominent among settled agrarians than more mobile hunter-gatherers). More than that, settled agriculture increased human proximity to animals, to one another, and to human waste and distinct environmental conditions which undoubtedly contributed to an increase rates of infectious diseases. Settled agriculture is obviously case in the Later Roman and Byzantine Empires as were a series of epidemics (that verge on being pandemics) starting in the late 2nd century and continuing through the middle-8th century.

The second basic idea for any consideration of plagues and famines in the past is that both phenomena are incredibly complex and generally the result of multiple variable. Diseases, for example, can vary not only on the biological level. Yeresinia Pestis, for example, is a bacteria transmitted primarily by rats and humans; Malaria, as another example, is an amoeba transmitted by a limited number of types of mosquitos. Cholera and Typhoid are primarily transmitted through contaminated water (and food). The range of different kinds of diseases, therefore, impacts the ways in which diseases spread, take hold, and impact mortality.

Famines likewise represent a series of conditions that range from weather and climate to economic and political decisions. Famine often results in malnutrition and compromised immune systems that can produce not only a greater susceptibility to  The relationship between famine and disease then requires that we consider not only politics, ecology, economics, and environmental conditions, but also the distinctive character of the diseases moving through the human population.

The archaeology of plague and famine in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Mediterranean has its own unique characteristics as well. There are four major trends, I think, in how archaeologists have approached these phenomena.

1. Bioarchaeology. Certainly the most sensational efforts to understand disease in the ancient world have come from bioarchaeologists. The publication of evidence for Yersinia Pestis (the Bubonic Plague) in dental pulp DNA samples from two 6th century cemeteries in Bavaria has added weight to hypothesis that the Justinianic plague was, indeed, the Bubonic plague, although as a few commentators have noted, 10 individuals with the plague in a rather remote region hardly represents a meaningful sample of the Mediterranean population at the time.

The challenges facing bioarchaeology involve not only the still-developing technologies necessary to analyze human skeletal remains at the scale necessary to produce a sufficiently significant body of evidence to allow for large scale conclusions. More than that, only certain kinds of diseases leave recognizable traces in human remains. Tuberculosis, for example, leaves tell-tale lesions on bones, but other illnesses like malaria are more elusive meaning that our view of epidemics illnesses in the ancient world will likely remain uneven for the time.

2. Climate and Environmental Archaeology. The second major trend in understanding plagues and famines in Late Antiquity is the growing interest in ancient climate change and the role of climate and the environment in creating conditions favorable with the development of epidemic and pandemic outbreaks of disease. The most thorough version of this approach is Kyle Harper’s 2017 book  The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017)  or the recent volume of the Late Antique Archaeology series dedicated to Environment and Society in the Long Late Antiquity (Brill 2018).

Harper and others have sought to understand the appearance of pandemic scale diseases in the late 2nd century, starting with the Antonine plague, and continuing through to the Justinian’s plague. Harper argues that end of the Roman Climate Optimum and the start of the Late Antique Ice Age (and the Late Antique Little Ice Age) may have created environmental conditions suitable for spread of new diseases in the Mediterranean basin. Harper and other scholars who have emphasized that large scale climate change is not an explanation in and of itself, but the impact of these changes must be understood in the context of both local environmental conditions and the larger political and social world of Late Antiquity. There is little doubt however that changes in global climate triggered changes in the agricultural regimes that contributed to “years without summer” and subsequent famines that are known from literary sources. The wide ranging debate around the “The Mystery Cloud of 536 CE” and its connection to the Justinianic plague is only one such example.

As any number of scholars have shown in recent years, for example the work done by Haldon, Elton and Newhart have done in Anatolia, regional variation in the environment plays a significant role in understand the impact of climate change at the local level. Sturt Manning has recently made clear the significant inter-annual variations in rain fall on Cyprus, which may have had as much of an impact on the health and prosperity of communities than large scale climate variation on the global level. Roman efforts to drain swamps, build roads, and deforest hills would have introduced new hydrological patterns that would have supported, for example, the mosquitos that carried malaria, as Robert Sallares has shown in his work. Bret Shaw has argued on the basis of epigraphic data from across the Mediterranean that there are clear seasonal patterns of mortality. The wide range of variables that contribute to these patterns include local weather during the hotter and more humid late summer months whose impact on the mortality of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis remains difficult to assess.

Environmental archaeology has also shed valuable light on global conditions that could have disrupted plague foci in, for example, rodent colonies in Central Asia or East Africa which would have dispatched plague bearing fleas to the Mediterranean through established trade routes in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Understanding these phenomena, of course, is extremely complex and we’re only at the very beginning of understand the existence of disease foci and their relationship to climate conditions. In fact, both of these things as independent variables remain difficult to understand much less in relation to one another.

That being said, a growing body of environmental proxies from Greenland ice cores to dendrochronology is beginning to allow us to map global climate change in antiquity. Unfortunately the chronological resolution and distribution of this data does not always coincide with the kinds of historical questions that Mediterranean archaeologists and historians are asking. Moreover, they do not always make the cause of climate variation clear and are often difficult to correlate with local conditions. This isn’t to say that this work is not producing meaningful results, but that the impact of climate science on our understanding of specific historical events like the Justinianic plaque continues to develop.

3. Archaeological Evidence. Michael McCormick, one of the leading scholars in the study of plagues in antiquity, has pulled together the evidence for mass burials in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period and published it in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. McCormick recognizes that these kinds of direct evidence for episodes of mass mortality may well provide indications of plague events and coincide with evidence from literary sources for mass burials.

The challenge, of course, is that the situation and dates of many of these mass burials remain unclear. In some cases, such as Kopetra on Cyprus, where a cistern becomes the tomb for at least 9 individuals, there is reason to at least suspect that these are people who died from disease. In other cases, like the Andritsa cave in Argolid, it’s more challenging to see the bodies of over 50 individuals as victims of the disease alone and might be better recognized as the result of a complex series of events that range from diseases and famine to regional political or military disruptions. As with efforts to understand the relationship between climate and disease, it seems likely that many of these burials represent the intersection of a series of conditions including the availability of a cave or a cistern for a mass burial. The analysis of the demographics of the individuals, when such data is available, and any chronological clustering of the incidents of mass burial likewise allow for a more refined interpretation of these events. McCormick shows that of the 48 mass burials datable to between 300 and 800, 36 of them occurred during the 6th and 7th century. That being said, the ongoing efforts to refine the dating of Late Roman ceramics, for example, may well complicate the chronology of these burials or at least complicate any clear correlation between events datable in the literary sources to a particular year or span and shifting archaeological chronologies.

4. Landscape, Settlement, and Demography. Finally, there has been a massive amount of attention on Late Roman settlement and demography over the last twenty years prompted in part by the rise in landscape and regional survey projects that have shed valuable light not only on rural settlement, but also on the relationship between city and country and between various regions in the Mediterranean basin.

On the most basic level questions of demography and settlement patterns provide a backdrop for the economic conditions present in the long Late Antiquity. As our understanding of the countryside, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, improves and reveals a “busy countryside” in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, traditional arguments for large scale demographic and economic decline have become less compelling. The neighborhood of the mass burial at Kopetra and the Andritsa cave in the Western Argolid appear to be active and even moderately prosperous with imported table wares, storage and transport amphora, and purpose made cooking pots appearing in urban and rural areas alike. Of course, this is not meant to suggest that plagues cannot strike economically prosperous communities or that they necessarily would have a negative impact on local economies, but to challenge views of the Late Antique landscape which saw conditions of decline and deprivation as particularly suitable for the outbreak of disease.

Instead, recent work has emphasized the ongoing connectivity of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and this connectivity goes well beyond well-known links between major urban centers or regions and now involves the myriad of small links that constituent the dense networks of small-scale and local exchange between microregions. These connections provided the Late Antique world with its remarkable resilience in times of political or environmental stress, and, at the same time, established the context for the spread of disease throughout the Later Roman world.

At present, our efforts to understand the character and extent of this connectivity in a nuanced way remains in its infancy. For example, we’re only now making strides to understand the countryside in the neighborhood of Adritsa Cave which in many ways shows remarkable continuity with earlier centuries. This makes it difficult to present even a local or regional context for this unusual site much less ascertain its place within larger regional trends.


If my contribution tomorrow does anything, I hope that I’m able to present a view of the archaeology of plagues and famines that provides some disciplinary context. This involves not only understanding the larger methodological trends that characterize research on these topics including bioarchaeology, environmental archaeology, excavations, and survey projects, but also emphasizes the epistemological and practical limits that shape archaeological discourse.

It’s cliche to note that the goal of archaeology is not necessarily to supplement the narratives established by historians and scholars of texts. In fact, archaeological evidence often remains oddly incompatible with these disciplines. Often the incommensurability stems from the different scales at which we operate. Even with the precisions of dendrochronology, most archaeological dates established through C14 dating or conventional ceramic typologies are more broad and imprecise than dates provided in texts.

As significantly, archaeologists sometimes work at the highly focused scale of a single site, part of a site, or trench, where evidence for phenomena like plagues may not be immediately visible. This situation means that even when archaeologists work at the scale of the region, we’re often forced to recognize that our inconsistent sample is better suited to understanding intraregional variation especially when considered at finer chronological resolutions.

Advances in bioarchaeological sampling are unlikely to resolve these issues quickly because of variability in discovery and preservation of human remains, the need to secure samples through particularly rigorous and time consuming excavation techniques that are not always possible, and the cost of analysis. The same holds true for many of the techniques that are producing important insights into regional environmental conditions that require specific situations (e.g. anaerobic lake beds), expertise, and funding that not all projects can access in the same way. The resulting patchworks, like the 10 individuals with the plague in Germany, will result in datasets that seemingly beg to be over generalized or dismissed as outliers especially in their relationship to particular environmental or epidemiological events.

Where archaeology shines is in providing evidence for long-term trends at the regional level and recognizing the ebb and flow of populations, prosperity, connectivity, and settlement. Plagues and famines while seemingly more common between the 3rd and 8th century often emerge as mere blips on the archaeological radar and soon disappear again the backdrop of persistent activity and the resilience of long-standing communities.

While this will likely disappoint historians who persist in their hope that archaeology or archaeological science can unlock the relationship between climate, disease, populations, economies, and politics, maybe it’ll be heartening in our contemporary situation where the COVIDs seem destined the fundamentally transform our everyday life. Viewed at the archaeological scale, it may be that The COVID pandemic will appear as little more than some discarded latex gloves and empty bottles of hand sanitizer.

Kephalari Blockhouse

I know that I’m not the first archaeologist to observe that without a field season this summer, we have theoretically more time to spend thinking carefully about our material and sites, tidying data, and preparing publications. This means, at least for me, trying to get some momentum on some lingering projects.

Two, in particular, are begging for attention. First, we have an almost complete draft of the publication of the area EF1 at Polis complete. In fact, I think we could have it ready for submission in two weeks.

More pressing at the moment, though, is a little article on the Late Roman finds from the Kephalari blockhouse in the Western Argolid. These finds were discovered in Corinth storerooms a few years ago and a group of us agreed to publish them. Of course, since that time lots of things have happened including WARP seasons, Polis stuff, a PKAP volume that’s not yet done, and The COVIDs. But this spring, the article received the ultimate motivating push: my colleague Scott Gallimore wrote up the catalogue and analysis of the finds.

So now it’s time that I do my part, which is writing up the “Discussion” section of the article. My goal is to offer a concise synthesis of 7th century settlement and rural insecurity in the northeastern Peloponnesus. It’s obviously a work in progress!


The assemblage from the Kephalari block house adds another small body of evidence to the increasingly complex mosaic of material from the later 6th, 7th, and early 8th century in the northeastern Peloponnesus. While the presence of material from the region’s significant urban centers, particularly Argos and Corinth, is well-known, archaeologists have only just begun to unpack and understand the situation in the countryside during these decades. The small number of excavated and well-published rural sites even in the well-studied northeastern Peloponnesus creates a particularly challenge for situating the reuse of the Kephalari blockhouse in its regional context. The growing number of stratified sequences, especially from Corinth, however, has made it increasingly possible to analyze the growing body of intensive survey data from this region from the end of antiquity. This, in turn, has offered new perspectives on a number of long-standing academic debates including changes in rural settlement patterns and urbanism, the character of the so-called “Slavic Invasions” of the late-6th century, and the presence of rural refuges such as the Andritsa cave.

Scholars have recognized that the reoccupation of rural sites, such as Pyrgouthi and the Kephalari block house appear to indicate significant investment in the adaptation of existing rural sites for reuse in the late 6th and 7th centuries. The appearance of window glass at Kephalari, for example, and the large-scale reconfiguration of the Pyrgouthi tower into a farmhouse with a courtyard suggests efforts to reoccupy these sites on a permanent basis. The evidence is less extensive from the other blockhouses and pyramids of the Argolid, but it appears that these sites were cleaned up with much of the material from earlier periods removed and the interior organization of the spaces modified with new walls and additions (Pettegrew 2006; Lord 1938; Scranton 1938).

Intensive survey has produced scatters of ceramics in the countryside that not only suggest that other Classical and Hellenistic sites experienced reoccupation in the Later Roman period, but that these sites were part of a larger reoccupation of the countryside. The site of Kastraki, for example, in the Inachos Valley, while unexcavated, may well be a similar site to Pyrgouthi or Kephalari in that it was a Classical or Hellenistic tower set atop a low rise in the valley bottom surrounded by a scatter of Late Roman material. The site of Any Vayia in the southeastern Corinthia likewise produced a low-density scatter suggesting a possible short-term reoccupation (Caraher et al. 2010) which found parallels elsewhere including on Euboea (Seifried and Parkinson 2014) and at the Vari House in Attica (Pettegrew 2006, p. 33).

Other smaller sites with material dating to the late-6th and 7th centuries exist throughout the Western Argolid survey area in the Inachos Valley and generally follow a pattern of settlement present in the 5th and 6th centuries. Athanasios Vionis and John Bintliff have argued for Late Antique Boeotia, urban and rural sites represent opposite sides of the same coin (Vionis 2017; Bintliff 2013). The persistence of sites in the countryside and even the expansion of activities into places like near coastal islands reflects the expansive use of diverse rural landscapes for agricultural purposes as well as nodes in regions and Mediterranean wide trade networks (Gregory 1984; 1995).

Urban sites continued to provide markets for rural agriculture, points of contact with larger imperial command economy, centers for manufacturing, and ecclesiastical and a certain amount of political authority. While the Finleyan concept of the “consumer city” should be laid to rest, work at Corinth (Sanders; Rothaus; Brown), Athens (Hayes), and Argos (Oikonomou-Laniado 2003) and in Boeotia (Bintliff, Vionis) have demonstrated that urban areas in Late Antiquity continued to serve as key places in Greece into the 7th century with continued investment in monumental architecture, urban amenities, and public spaces fortified in part by the growing spiritual, political, and economic role of urban bishops and the persistent reach of the imperial government.

This is not to suggest that the 7th century was not a period of significant disruption in southern Greece. Urban areas clearly experienced contraction and settlement in rural areas and this is visible in the larger WARP survey area as well as in urban surveys in Boeotia. The changes in rural settlement, including the emergence of fortified settlements in the countryside, seem to accompany continued economic activity in rural areas. While the evidence for such sites in the Argolid remains limited — the site of Kastro near the village of Tsiristra being a possible exception — the reoccupation of places like the Kephalari block house may well represent the need for both additional security and as well as continued economic viability in the countryside (Vionis 155-157). The reoccupation of fortifiable, if not necessarily fortified, sites in the Argolid may also shed light on the status of sites like the Andritsa Cave. If continued occupation of the countryside indicated the continued viability of markets and networks open to agricultural production and the fortified sites not only in Greece but across the wider Eastern Mediterranean reflects larger insecurity in the region, then places like the Andritsa Cave may well reflect the local realities of both rural wealth and instability. The so-called isles of refuge first recognized by Sinclair Hood and critiqued by Tim Gregory in the 1980s and 1990s, may also reflect the same effort to reconcile economic potential with the need for added security during unstable times.

Plague and the End of Antiquity

This weekend, I read Kyle Harper’s new-ish book on plague, climate change, and the end of the Roman Empire: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017). I have to admit that I was skeptical before I read the book. The idea that plague contributed to the end of the Roman Empire isn’t particularly novel and the plagues of the 2nd and 3rd century have sometimes been clumsily associated with the rise of Christianity. Our growing understanding of ancient diseases and the physical condition of individuals and communities in Late Antiquity clearly has something to offer the historian, but linking the patchy evidence to Mediterranean wide geopolitics always seemed like a stretch. Finally, as readers of this blog probably discern, I’m intrigued by the recent “environmental turn” in Mediterranean archaeology, but also have lingering concerns that our interest in the ancient and modern climate has pushed us toward a new kind of environmental determinism

Despite this skepticism, Harper’s book was really good and compelling. First, this book is far from a single cause argument (as one might expect it would be considering Harper’s other work and reputation). The plague is set against a careful reading of climate change over the course of the first millennium and the political, economic, and demographic developments of the Roman world. Second, the plagues unleashed in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries were not simply more virulent versions of illnesses that had long existed in the human population, but new diseases – small pox and bubonic plague – whose impact on the Roman world depended upon both the political organization of the connected Mediterranean and the emergence of a more variable and challenging late Holocene climate regime. Finally, the book is really well written and, in turn, evocative and clearly argued, descriptive and analytical, illuminated by literary sources and grounded in archaeological evidence. 

I do wonder, though, whether framing the book as a conflict between humans and nature creates a view of the world that seems to challenge the books basic argument that the rise of the Roman mega-state was partly the result of the auspicious middle Holocene climate. It seems to me a more compelling way to discuss humans, climate, their environment, and the microbial world of bacteria and viruses that shaped the human experience in the ancient Mediterranean would be as deeply enmeshed and entangled. In fact, the helplessness articulated by so many ancient authors when faced with draught, plague, floods, and cold, speaks less to a view of existence as a battle with the forces of nature and more to an understanding of humans and nature as parallel manifestations the same cosmic and divine forces. The changes to the environment, the appearance of plagues, and unpredictable and unexpected weather formed part of the same universe that preserved the Roman Empire, the structured religion and belief, and that defined the physical health of individual bodies. For example, the end of the world was seen as the world growing old and drying out – quite literally with the arrival of droughts in some places – and it had a clear parallel in the view of old age that saw it as the drying out of the body.

That being said, the view of the human world as separate and in conflict with nature gave the book its tragic arc. Harper makes no attempt to hide his view that the Roman Empire was more than simply an administrative unit, but the fundamental framework for life in the first century Mediterranean. As a result, the collapse of the Roman state – particularly in the western Mediterranean, but ultimately in the east as well – marked more than just a political disruption, but a fundamental social and cultural one as well. The experience of individuals, then, paralleled the larger political narrative. This is compelling when the book documents the personal and community trauma associated with the plague.

It’s less compelling, though, in dealing with ragged edges of how communities experienced the Roman Mediterranean. For example, it’s become increasingly apparent that in the Eastern Mediterranean communities continued to enjoy connections that defied changing political boundaries. In other words, social and economic bonds persisted for centuries in some cases after the political life of the Roman Empire collapsed. It would appear, in these cases, that the Roman state – with its political, military, and economic challenges brought on by changes in the climate and plague – was more fragile than the centuries old social, religious, and cultural bonds between communities around the Mediterranean littoral. The persistence of these bonds played a key role in understanding the end of antiquity as a transformation rather than a decline or fall. 

This critique is, in the end, fairly minor and probably can be categorized as “I’d write a different book,” and shouldn’t detract from the larger value of this book. Works like this demonstrate the incredible potential of the environmental turn for revising even the most traditional narratives in our field. 

More Late Antiquity (or at least a start)

For the last week or so, I’ve been trying to get back into the academic groove and thinking about Late Antiquity. I have done some reading and, more importantly, some writing about the 7th century both in Greece and on Cyprus. Mostly, I’m working to get a first draft of a paper documenting and analyzing a 7th century site in the Western Argolid.

Here is the first draft of the first couple paragraphs. It’s rough, lacks citations, and I’m sure it’ll change, but at least it’s going somewhere.

The past two decades have witnessed a major change in how archaeologists understand the Late Roman and Early Medieval landscape of Greece. The rise of survey archaeology in the late-20th century fueled the growing awareness of the “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity. This complemented work in urban areas across Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly demonstrating that Late Roman cities and their countrysides experienced continued prosperity, social vitality, and political and economic significance into the 5th and 6th centuries. For Greece, scholars argued that the Slavic invasions of the late-6th century brought an end to this Late Antique prosperity and initiated a period of economic, political, and social dislocation often called the “Dark Ages.” Over the last 20 years, work at urban and rural sites has started to question this narrative. Work at the site of Corinth, in particular, has shown that the city continued to prosper into the 7th century. Moreover, imported ceramics and storage vessels indicate that Corinth enjoyed persistent connections across the Mediterranean even if these connections appear to be less dynamic and consistent then earlier centuries. At the same time, regional networks in the northeastern Peloponnesus emerged that supplied cooking and utility wares to communities well into the final third of the 7th century. The results from Corinth suggest that the city experienced economic change in the 7th century with fewer imports and a rise in regionally produced vessels, but this change was not the same as decline and indicated continuity with earlier centuries as much as new patters of economic and social relations.

Stratigraphic excavations formed the basis for this revised assessment of the 7th century in Greece. The assemblages produced through excavations at Corinth and at the Pyrgouthi Tower near Berbati in the Argolid, in particular, have helped to revise the dates of earlier excavation across Greece and challenged the assumption that destruction deposits associated with the Slavic invasions should have 6th century dates. Deposits from the Baths at Argos and the Stadium at Nemea, for example, now are better dated to the 7th century than to the later 6th century as their original excavators suggested. This revised chronology has also extended to our analysis of intensive survey assemblages. For example, pushing the date of certain well-know finewares into the late-6th and early-7th century Phocaean Ware 10C and the later forms of African Red Slip (105 and 106) illuminates areas of possible 7th century activity in the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey area (Pettegrew 2007, 777; Caraher 2014, 157-158). In other contexts, Chris Cloke’s study of the off-site material from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project has revealed a 7th century landscape with remarkable continuity with material from the 5th and 6th centuries. This article takes Cloke’s assessment of 7th-century landscape of the Nemea Valley and work at Corinth and considers it in the context of recent work in the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP).

Doing Late Antiquity

One of the funny things about expertise is that if you don’t practice being an expert on something, you begin not to be. Over the past few years, my interests have changed and my level of expertise has declined in general. I tend to see this as a good thing. My interest in the world is democratizing, but at times, I have nostalgia for the times when I knew enough to confidently critique a colleague’s argument or offer a nuanced understanding of a complicated problem.

Over the last few months, I’ve been quietly reading on Late Antiquity. I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that I am becoming an expert again, but it’s been fun to visit the Late Antique world, to write about, and to think about it again.

I’m just about finished reading Georgios Deligiannakis, The Dodecanese and East Aegean islands in late Antiquity, AD 300-700 (2016) in part because I’m preparing for a conference this fall on island archaeology and Byzantium and partly because I’m working on an article on the Western Argolid in the 7th century. Deligiannakis book includes both a useful gazetteer and a synthetic analysis of Late Antiquity in the Dodecanese with special attention to Rhodes and Kos.

The book is filled with useful observations and I’ll mention just two. First, he notes that the proliferation of churches on Rhodes where there are around 80 Early Christian basilica likely reflects changing practices in euergetism in the Christian community. Citing the work of Rudolf Haensch and Peter Baumann as well as the modest epigraphic record from churches in the Dodecanese,  he argues that Christian theology motivated more modest donors to churches and this expanded the resources available to both Christian communities and the emerging ecclesiastical elite. This is compelling to me. In fact, I made a similar argument – very quietly and without any confidence – in my dissertation

Deligiannakis pays particular attention to the 7th century. This is not only useful because I’m working on a paper on the 7th century (and have been a bit obsessed with it), but also because Deligiannakis goes to some length to demonstrate the issues with using coins to date deposits in the 6th and 7th centuries. On Cyprus, the tendency to date buildings and deposits by coins – rather than ceramics – has served to align archaeological evidence too neatly with literary sources, particularly on the impact of the Arab raids. This overlooks complicated issues like the supply of coins and their survival rates. On a larger scale, this practice tends to drag the dates for ceramics and sites (and destruction layers) earlier than the ceramics alone might suggest and to cluster diverse and diffuse events into periods well-represented numismatically. Thus, the reigns of Heraclius and Constans II tend to be overrepresented in archaeological narratives. Some of the buildings, deposits, and destruction (and construction) levels dated to the reigns of these two emperor should probably be dated later.

Now, off to actually write about Late Antiquity. I might not be an expert any more, but I’ve certainly forgotten enough to find it fascinating. 

Communities of Practice around the South Basilica at Polis

In the spirit of my “Sumertime Fragments,” I’ve been working on a little piece on the relationship between the church at E.F2 at Polis, which we call the South Basilica, and various communities. Unlike most of my sober and frankly archaeological (and architectural) approaches to this building and space, I tried to offer something that’s a bit more interpretative and free wheeling (if not straying necessarily too far from the basic evidence).

This is a fragment, though, with incomplete citations, half-baked ideas, and a more playful tone than usual, but maybe it’s of interest to some folks. If nothing else it represents what I was thinking about on my walks and jogs around the village of Polis over the past few weeks:

The district surrounding the South Basilica represents the adaptability of the local community over time.

The basilica’s distinctive location along the northern edge of the city of Arsinoe positioned the church along a major route from the coast to the city itself. During the Roman period, the district featured a paved, north-south and east-west road which intersected at a quadrafrons arch. This demonstrated that this route from the coast to the city was likely a major intersection where a road running through the northern part of the city joined a road that connected the city to its ancient port either along the coast immediately north of the city or at the site of the modern village of Latchi (Nicolaou 1966; Leonard 2005). The South Basilica stood near this intersection and its western entrance opened onto the north-south road. Later additions to the South Basilica further emphasized its relationship with the roads in this district. The construction of a narthex monumentalized the western entrance to the church. A porch running along the south side of the church presented a series of arches to anyone traveling along the east-west road to the south of the building. The Christian identity of the community greeted anyone entering the city from the coast. Moreover, the narthex and the porch provide shade for the traveler, and a contemporary apsidal wellhouse immediately across the road from the basilica entrance offered water.

The parallels between the architecture of the church at Polis with its southern porch and the acropolis church at Amathous hints that the church may have also stood as a monument on the westward progress of pilgrims across the island. In this way, the South Basilica represented the intersection between the larger Christian community in the Mediterranean and the church at Arsinoe. Victor Turner famously argued that pilgrimage was a liminal phenomenon for participants en route to holy sites (Turner 1966). The liminality of the pilgrimage experience produced the temporary suspension of social differences and created a space of communitas where new and more egalitarian social relationships emerged. The liminal location of the South Basilica at the north side of the city, its possible association with pilgrimage, and its offer of shade and water allowed the architectural, ritual, and social space of the church to merge. The result is a shared space between the community at Polis and the weary Christian pilgrim. The modifications to the church also included the transformation of the building from a wood-roofed to a barrel vaulted church. The techniques needed to install buttresses to help the thin basilica walls could support barrel vaulting, for example, likely required specialized knowledge. On the island, this practice was most common among churches on the Karpas peninsula and relatively rare in the western part of island (Stewart 2010; Megaw 1946). If we assume that the South Basilica contributed to pilgrims routes across the island which culminated at the eastern port of Salamis-Constantia, then the connection between builders in the neighborhood of Salamis and the church at Polis hints at a relationship between the two communities beyond just the pilgrims’ travels.

The rebuilding of the South Basilica was more than simply a redesign of the church, but a construction project that involved the construction of a massive rubble fill layer. This level of large cobble, building debris, and broken ceramics was over a meter deep and functioned as a French drain which a large reservoir for water flowing down the north slope of the city toward the vulnerable south wall of the church building. This adaptation appears to have been a local solution to the particularly local problem of the church’s situation across the route of a drainage. Roman and Hellenistic construction in the area featured a number of deep drains and various pipes designed, it would appear, to control the downslope flow of water in the area. The deep drains may have no longer functioned by the Late Roman period and the French drain constructed to the south of the basilica offered a unique solution to the longstanding problems of water at this site. Moreover, the construction of this feature involved a significant investment in human energy and commitment to rebuild and modifying the damaged church. In other words, the construction of the French drain, the south portico and narthex as well as the conversion of the church to barrel vaulting represented the intersection of local labor and regional practices and like the situation of the church on the main route to the coast, provided a meeting point for local and regional communities.

It is worth noting, briefly, that the analysis of the ceramic material in the rubble level produced an assemblage that similarly reflected the intersection of regional and local preferences. The fine table wares at the site primarily derived from Rough Cilicia with small quantities of imports from North Africa and the Aegean. Some cooking pots originated in western Cyprus with the site of Dhiorios in approximately 100 km to the northeast (Catling 1972). Likewise certain forms of the ubiquitous Late Roman 1 amphora originated on the island while other utility wares manifest Aegean and Levantine origins. Comparing the assemblage from Polis to those elsewhere on the island suggests that access to particular types of pottery or the chronological ebb and flow of production do not alone explain the variation in types of pottery present in Cypriot assemblages (Caraher et al. 2019). For example, the assemblage of Late Roman fine ware associated with the smaller coastal site of Maroni-Petrera and the large urban site of Kourion produced a smaller percentage of African and Aegean imports than the inland village site of Kalavasos-Kopetra. The distinct character of the late-7th century assemblages at Polis as well as others from this period from across the island reflects certain traditions and practices in these communities that shaped their choice of table wares. The role of fine ware both in the performative aspects of domestic display and the practical aspects of food presentation and consumption means that the character and shape of these vessels speaks to personal and community identity (Vroom ????).

Over the last 20 years, the concept of communities of practice has emerged as a useful concept for understanding the emergence and structuring of educational and occupational communities (Wenger 1998). The term offers a useful way to articulate the how practice produces community, identity, and knowledge (Orr 1996). For the district around the South Basilica, evidence for practice in the Late Roman period range from habits of consumption, such as the preference for Cypriot Red Slip wares over other imported table wares, to those associated with the architectural modification of the church itself. In fact, the informal transmission of building knowledge that likely produced the buttressed walls of South Basilica reflected the existence of communities of knowledge in Late Roman Cyprus. In this context, then, the physical at the edge of the Late Roman city and its role in contact between the Christian community of Arsinoe and pilgrims paralleled the relationship between the adaptation of the church to meet the distinctive needs of the site through local bodies and itinerate builders.

The intersection of various communities at the South Basilica also extended from the living to the dead. At some point soon after the addition of the south portico, narthex, drain, and barrel vaults, the southern and eastern end of the church became an important cemetery for the Christian community at Arsinoe. A series of three well-appointed, built burials in the floor of the south aisle may have served as an initial impetus for the later graves in the area. Interestingly, the burial of a 17-25 year old male included a bronze cross which was likely reused from an earlier context. While the exact date of this burial remains unclear, it probably dated to the seventh or early eighth century and may have been associated with the addition of the south porch and narthex to the church. Moreover, the appearance of a cross in this burial appears to have anticipated the appearance of small pectoral crosses, often in picrolite, throughout the cemetery associated with the South Basilica. The growth of this cemetery and the use of pectoral crosses by the individuals buried around the South Basilica traces the reciprocal practices that defined the relationship between the church and the community. The formal burials in the south aisle of the church appear to have stimulated a wave of Christian burials around the church and expanded its function.

The changing character of the building may reflect the changing relationship of the church to the community at Polis.

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

As I haiku-ed this morning on the Twitters, I am working on an abstract for a paper that I’ll give at the 2019 Dumbarton Oaks colloquium “The Insular World of Byzantium” in November.

Here’s the haiku:

Writing an abstract
During the summer season
evokes autumn cold

Here’s the abstract:

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

Over the past 20 years the work of historians and archaeologists has complicated the our understanding of the 6th to 8th century on the island of Cyprus. The tidy narratives of devastating invasions, earthquakes, condominium, and social dislocation have given way to more messy and nuanced understandings of these centuries. Some centers saw continued prosperity while other experience decline. Innovative architecture existed along side more modest forms of ceramics. Invasions created destruction and new economic relationships. The complexity of this era offers some insights into character of Cypriot insularity.

This paper is grounded in recent work at the sites of Polis (ancient Arsinoe), modern Polis, in western Cyprus and the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on the eastern side of the island. Both sites produced a substantial assemblage of Late Roman to Early Byzantine pottery and a basilica style churches. Architecture and ceramics offer perspectives on how the Cypriot islandscape mediates distinctive economic relationships and forms of cultural and religious expression. The connection between these sites and other places on the island, across the region, and around the Mediterranean suggests the contours of an insular culture that is neither uniform nor consistent.

On the one hand, the difference in the character of assemblages and architecture across the island (and between Koutsopetria and Polis) makes defining a singular Late Roman or Early Byzantine Cypriot insular identity impossible. On the other hand, these difference reflect both historical trends that defined the island’s political and social landscape for centuries and distinct pressures of the 6th-8th century. In the case of Cyprus, an island archaeology informed as much by historical contingency as geography provides a context for a new understanding of the Early Byzantine era.

Settlement in Byzantine Greece

As this semester is winding down, I’m drifting toward a kind of “read everything” mode that is as fun as it is rather unproductive and unfocused. First on the list was Athanasios Vionis, “Understanding Settlement in Byzantine Greece: New Data and Approaches for Boeotia, Sixth to Thirteenth Century,” DOP 71 (2017), 127-173. It’s massive and insightful and humbling to anyone who has thought about the historical Greek landscape in a diachronic way. 

Vionis tracks the change in settlement structure across in the Medieval period in Boeotia drawing largely on survey data, ceramic study, and GIS analysis produced over the course of the various surveys in Boeotia. In some ways, this work is an extension of his interest in using “central place theory” to understand the transformation of the Mediterranean landscape over the Longue Durée, and, in other ways, it demonstrates continuity with John Bintliff’s longstanding interest in structural change over time in the Greek landscape.

For the Late Roman period in Boeotia, Vionis described the transformation of the major urban centers and the emergence of a new, monumental landscape centered on newly-constructed churches in the 6th century. It’s interesting that in Boeotia, as elsewhere, these churches stood in prominent positions in the settlements and often disrupted or violated the existing urban grid. In Corinth, however, churches tended to stand around the periphery of the settlement despite the historical and institutional significance of the bishop of that city (although, to be fair, there might be a large church closer to the ancient city center which is obscured today by the modern village). Likewise, in Argos, which features numerous Early Christian basilicas, none appear to encroach on the core of the Roman city with its agora, theater, and bath, but several stand in the in close proximity and one stands atop the Aspis hill with its ancient sanctuary. These alternate examples are not meant to suggest that Vionis is wrong or overstates his observations, but wonder out loud at the variety of monumentalizing strategies undertaken by the institutional church and Christian communities in Greece.  

Vionis also adds new vocabulary to the analysis of the Late Roman landscape in Boeotia and describes the rise of rural “microtowns” at the end of antiquity (in the late 7th century) and the consolidation of “megavillages” in the Middle Byzantine period. These microtowns continued some basic civic functions of Late Roman cities, including the presence of bishops, commercial activity, and fortifications, and often stood on or near the sites of ancient cities. They were distinct from smaller, unfortified settlements in the countryside that stood as “secondary settlements” and depended in some way on regional microtowns. Thus, a new settlement hierarchy emerged in the early Middle Ages. By the middle Byzantine period, the megavillage served as the central place for communities distributed into smaller settlements and farms in the countryside. Once again, Vionis presents the organization of the Boeotian countryside in hierarchical terms with the central places representing religious, political, and economic nodes for the surrounding region. 

There are three things that give me a bit of pause in this article (and I’ve only scratched the surface of it with my idiosyncratic mini-review), and they probably reflect more of my own interests at present than any weakness in the article.

First, I wonder how our ability to control chronology and, by extension, time shapes the kind of landscapes that Vionis envisions. For example, there’s a tendency to see rural sites like farms or hamlets, which are often recognized and defined on the basis of rather small and limited assemblages of material, as being contemporary with one another. At the same time, because their ceramic assemblages are so limited, it is possible that, say, from a group of five rural sites datable to one or two centuries, only one existed at any given time or maybe all five did for just a very limited span or two of the five did for one 50-year span. On the one hand, we might say that this is an intractable problem because of the imprecision of archaeological dating practices and the variability of site discovery in the landscape. As a result, we make the assumption that all of the sites visible for a period existed simultaneously and that this might compensate for the vagaries of site recovery across the landscape. On the other hand, I do wonder whether this kind of methodological compromise makes the larger project of making settlement hierarchies less viable in general.

This leads me to my second observation. Myrtou Veikou’s work in Epirus which covered a similar period proposed the existence of an emerging kind of Byzantine “third space” during the period that Vionis’s studied. The concept of third space came from the post-colonial theories of Homi Bhabha and was applied to geography by the late Edward Soja. These spaces existed explicitly outside of the kinds of hierarchies that Vionis presents and represented all together less stable entities which resist classification. These places are more dynamic over time and do not map neatly onto either concepts like the rural or the urban or institutional structures like bishops, civic officials, or markets. The uncertainty and ambiguity of these places in the landscape resists our more structural efforts to define the function, scale, or relationship between settlements which can be demoralizing for scholars who work to understand Byzantine space at scale. At the same time, the notion of third-space also allows us to adapt our landscapes to the chronological ambiguity of archaeological data practically when it is collected through different methods and practices as well as at different scales and resolutions. The ambiguity of the Byzantine third space reflects the kind of data at our disposal and normalizes the fuzzy and sometimes contradictory results of our analysis.

These more dynamic spaces within the landscape also imply movement at various scales. Vionis’s work does a nice job at understanding the slow shift of settlements as they contract, reform, and reconceptualize across Boeotia. I’d be intrigued to understand how these shifts represent the flow of people, wealth, goods, and resources through the area. Vionis’s attention to walking distances from central places as a way to understand the scope of agricultural productive area in the vicinity of settlement is useful. It prompted me to think about the cultural, political, environmental, and economic variables that might shape these models for understanding movement in the countryside. For example, the decision to cultivate fields beyond a two or three hour walking distance from home or a settlement might represent the results of exogamous marriage, forms of risk management, environmental strategies, or even acts of religious piety or efforts to develop social capital. Moreover, a range of strategies in the countryside might also reflect the movement of individuals to local pilgrimage sites, visits to relatives who live in settlements that do not map onto the local hierarchical nodes, or even economic forays into new markets, new resources, or to take advantage of variability in the political landscape. Obviously it is impossible to anticipate all potential forms of fluidity in the Early and Middle Byzantine landscape, but it would be interesting to think about how the notion of settlement hierarchies intersects with Horden and Purcell’s more dynamic notion of microregions and connectivity as defining the Mediterranean world.

These comments should not be regarded as criticism of Vionis’s work, of course. It reflects both careful attention to the nature of evidence from Boeotia as well as a deep understanding of Byzantine social, political, economic, and ecclesiastical organization and history. His work, however, has prompted me to think about our efforts to understand the space and settlement of both the Western Argolid and on Cyprus during these same periods. It’s a good way to start looking ahead to my summer study seasons and some walks in the Greek and Cypriot landscape.

Survey Archaeology and Dogs

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been working my way through some recent scholarly on survey archaeology as we begin to analyze the data from the Western Argolid Regional Project. Hopefully I’ll have time to blog more at length about articles like, Marica Cassis, Owen Doonan, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, “Evaluating Archaeological Evidence for Demographics, Abandonment, and Recovery in Late Antique and Byzantine Anatolia,” Human Ecology 46 (2018): 381–398. Cassis et al. bring together the analysis of a range of survey projects in Anatolia to demonstrate a diverse array of changes in settlement across the region during the seventh and eighth centuries. The authors argue for regional variation but also connections to climate change, the occupation of marginal lands, and varying degrees of regional engagement in larger economic and political systems. 

I’ve also started to read carefully, John Bintliff, Emeri Farinetti, Božidar Slapšak, and Anthony Snodgrass, Boeotia Project, Volume II: The City of Thespiai: Survey at a Complex Urban Site. Cambridge 2017. While there is much to unpack in this volume, I genuinely appreciated the anecdote on p. 31. 

“One recollection, shared between the notebooks and our own vivid memories, is that of the ‘Hounds of Thespiai’. In those days, when dogs in rural Greece were almost never treated as pets, allowed in the home or kept on a leash (in contrast to the gilded pooches on parade in Athens’ Kolonaki Square), their main function in the countryside was to guard houses and sheep-folds. Apart from the violent barking which was the first form of custodianship, few ventured physical aggression unless one really intended to break into private property. To these rules of behaviour, comforting for the nervous student on field survey in Greece for the first time, the Mad Dogs of Thespies were a permanent exception. Once the field teams were in place in the lowlands of the ancient city each morning, only a few minutes of suspicious calm would elapse before a distant belling from the top of Thespies village hill above us would announce our detection by the Mad Dogs. They would immediately pour down the hill-side towards us at a great pace, then charge at the two teams. There never seemed to be an intention to stop short and make fierce gestures: rather, one got the repeated impression that large pieces of student were believed to be on offer to the under-fed mongrels. Only a Classical education offered daily security against the presumed threat: forming a circle, the field teams would present their steel-tipped sets of 2-m ranging poles to their would-be attackers. Wonderfully, after ten minutes of the ensuing stand-off, the Mad Dogs would slink off, but one could never be sure that an unexpected reprise might not occur later in the morning.”